In Revelation 2, as Jesus writes seven letters to seven churches. Now remember, Jesus is telling John to send these letters to seven real churches back in 95 AD, but in each letter we also find a glimpse of the future. Well, future then, past and present for us. Each church letter bears an uncanny resemblance to the Christian church as a whole in a particular period of history. History now, future then. You know what I mean.
Now you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get to the end of the world stuff in Revelation. Where’s the apocalypse? Remember, Revelation is about revealing Jesus, and revealing God’s plan for the world. That includes the end times, and we’ll be there soon. But God wants us to see the whole picture. In the church age, Jesus reveals Himself to and through the church.
It’s also important because God’s plan for tomorrow has bearing today. And the coolest thing to me is that most of this is prophecy that already came true. In chapters two and three, we get a 2,000 year-review of church history. But it was written in 95 AD. That’s pretty amazing. Now it doesn’t give names and dates, and it doesn’t even claim to be predictive. But judge for yourself as we go. I think it’s amazing.
Now letter number 2 begins in Revelation 2:8,
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write…” (Revelation 2:8).
Smyrna was a city on the Aegean coast. Today it’s in Turkey and the city is now called Izmir. I actually lived there as a toddler. The word smyrna comes from myrrh – a spice that you may remember from the wise men story. Myrrh is a burial spice. It smells wonderful, but you only get that smell when myrrh is crushed.
Smyrna is the persecuted church, living in affliction and poverty. But just like that myrrh, when the church was crushed, it revealed something wonderful. To the persecuted church, Jesus reveals himself in verse eight as the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. Jesus conquered death, and the persecuted church needed to know it.
“I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (2:9).
In other words, they can take your job, they can take your house, they can even take your life – but they cannot take your true riches. And Jesus tells them, “You are rich!”
Beginning around 100 AD, the Caesars of Rome persecuted Christians – burned at the stake, given to beasts in arenas for sport, and driven to live in catacombs below the earth. But Jesus says in verse ten:
“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days” (2:10).
Ten days here may picture the ten waves of persecution that hit between 100 and 300 AD. More than six million Christians were killed. But Jesus says:
“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (2:10).
Then verse 11: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death” (2:11).
Second death is the one that sends you to Hell, and the persecuted church could not be touched by it.
So what happened to the church under persecution? Amazingly, it spread. Roman persecution forced the church out into the whole world, and wherever they went, they shared their faith. Persecution also purified and unified the church. Hypocrites don’t survive long under threat of death, but genuine faith stands the test.
Read the letter to Smyrna. If you are facing persecution, Jesus says, do not be afraid. Rejoice. Great is your reward!
If you are not persecuted, that’s good. But remember those who are. Hebrews 13 says, “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Today Christians are persecuted across the globe. More Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than every previous century combined.
GK Chesterton noted this: he said, “Jesus promised his disciples three things – that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”
Bible quotes in NIV unless otherwise stated.